Dewatering pumps along with disciplined operation saved 13 trapped
by Drew Champlin
July 20, 2018

The pump industry was quickly called into action in late June when 12 members of a junior soccer team along with an assistant coach were trapped in a cave in Thailand’s Chaing Rai Province.

Heavy rains, rising water levels and strong currents endangered the group and kept them stranded.

More than 10,000 people aided in the rescue, including divers, rescue workers, governmental agencies and pump engineers. Companies including Xylem, Sulzer and Kirloskar Brothers all played a part in aiding the rescue, which culminated on July 10 after the team was trapped for 18 days in a chamber more than 2.5 miles from where they entered the cave.

Thailand Cave Rescue illustrationImage courtesy of Adobe Stock

Xylem had engineers on-site to aid in the rescue. Company CEO Patrick Decker was in Thailand with his wife before Singapore Water Week from July 8-12. He saw nonstop coverage of the event on Thai TV and tried to get in touch with officials in charge of the rescue, he said. He secured a phone call with the governor of Chaing Rai.

According to The Washington Post, a truck with a small industrial pump was on-site early in the rescue efforts, but more were needed. Within three days of the start of the June 23 crisis, more than 40 pumps had arrived. According to The Post, pumping power stabilized the water level and lowered it on drier days while removing more than 400,000 gallons per hour. This flooded fields of 128 farmers, who lost their rice harvests for the year.

Sulzer confirmed that they had pumps on-site, but declined to go into specifics. Company representatives have not spoken publicly about the rescue.

According to its press release, Kirloskar Brothers had team members on-site since July 5 and offered to allocate four specialized high-capacity Autoprime dewatering pumps. These were kept ready at the Kirloskarvadi plant to be airlifted to Thailand for the rescue operation.

Tassanai Poopat, who works in Xylem’s Thailand office, went to the cave during the discovery process and noticed around 20 pumps on location, but only five were operational due to insufficient electricity and tight spaces, Decker said. Poopat along with Ryan Ng from Xylem's Singapore office, Bob Spinner from the dewatering headquarters in Bridgeport, N.J., Adam Drakeley from the Xylem primary dewatering pump manufacturing facility in Quenington, England and Chong Hin Koh, managing director for Southeast Asia from Singapore, were all on site at various points.

The pumps were large and had to be hand carried by Navy SEALs to their locations in the cave, Decker said. But the pumps that were immediately available were not suited for the setting.

The rescue area was overwhelmed with people and no more pumps were needed, Decker was told, but he said the governor was impressed that Xylem had a worker there to survey. Decker was able to get two of the company’s top dewatering applications engineers to the site by Saturday, July 7. There were five representatives from Xylem at the site at various times during the event.

Xylem came up with two plans. The primary one assumed they would not be able to get pumps they believed were fit for the purpose and would work with what was on-site. The backup plan, which was not needed since the boys were rescued, was focused on deciding what pumps would fit, what they would look like and how the company could get them there.

There were four chambers rescuers had to go through to get the team out. Decker said that on Friday before his team was able to get in, Chamber 1 was muddy but clear. Chamber 2, a few hundred meters in, had water that was knee-high. Chamber 3 was U-shaped, in a tight space and full of water. Chamber 4 was a kilometer in length and also full of water.

The Thai rescue team and the Xylem workers were able to help increase flow rate by 40 percent.

“Imagine a handful of pumps sitting at entrance of the cave and they’ve got hoses that are going up to a kilometer into the cave,” Decker said. “You’ve got limited power supply and you’re going to have a lot of offtake of the water in terms of leaks but also depressurization and by the time you get to the end of that hose, very little power supply is there.

“They helped the team slice the hoses and basically set up a relay. Rather than having five pumps all operate on their own, they basically reduced that and said, ‘How do we set up a relay of the pumps of the 20 to where they are not requiring that much electricity, but using the pumps to push the water along and each one helps along the way.’ They ended up recabling the electrical supply and that was a big increase in the flow rate as well.”